Do you remember where and when you first learned about fascism? The first time you read a book about Hitler or Mussolini? Can you recall the feelings inside when you imagined how powerless the people they persecuted were and you heard their tragic stories of oppression?
Did you follow the despots' paths to power like you watch Game of Thrones, being hopeful and excited each time there was a chance to derail their ascent only to see those hopes dashed time and again as you knew they would be? If so, and you're like me, you also probably spent some amount of time thinking about what you would have done if you lived at that point in history.
I remember sitting in Lou Offer's World History Class as a freshman at UofD High School some unspoken number of decades ago and reading about Hitler. After class, my friends and I boastfully talked about how we would have fought him, taking to the hills like Red Dawn's Wolverines- now I've dated myself.
In our youthful imagination, we saw the bad guys wearing clear black hats, in this case brown shirts, and we fearlessly announced our defiance and willingness to stop them at any cost. Safe in the present day, we bragged of the lengths to which we would go to defeat tyranny and preserve justice, each of our claims of bravery and heroism more elaborate than the last.
We were kids. Dumb kids. We were decades and continents removed from any real danger, and we acted like it, safe in the knowledge that our bluffs would never be called.
Except now they have been. Today we face exactly that kind of inflection point we read about, a chance to stop a dictator. When we read about those opportunities long ago, we said: "How dumb were those people? How did they not see Hitler coming? Why didn't they stop him?" Starting to sound familiar?
I think an important lesson to remember is that in the real world everything is not so obviously cut and dried, good and evil, right and wrong. It's easy to look back with the 20/20 vision of hindsight and play Monday morning quarterback. But we don't have that luxury.
I cannot state emphatically enough that I believe this is one of those times. And that, if we fail to act, the results will be disastrous for our country and our way of life as we know it. Can I prove that? Am I certain? No. Of course not. My crystal ball is in the shop this week. But the signs are there. And it's important that we pay attention.
When the New York Times first reported on the rise of Hitler in 1922, they described him as a cult of personality who derived his support as "a popular hero" with his powerful oratory and the perception that he was a "man of common people." They mentioned that he was against Jews (among many other groups), the Versailles Treaty, existing conditions, and the "weak Berlin Government." They pointed out he "stands only for a 'strong united Germany under a strong Government.'"
As for his blatant anti-Semitism? They discounted it as "not so genuine or violent as it sounded." They go on to explain all of the sophisticated political reasons why a politician would use that kind of rhetoric even when he didn't really embrace it. I could go on, but you get the point.
Am I saying that Trump is Hitler? Of course not. Only Hitler is Hitler. But, what I know in my heart is that Trump is dangerous to America and Americans. Perhaps he doesn't really mean the bigoted things he says against Hispanics, Muslims, women, blacks, Jews or the disabled. Perhaps he only says them for effect or, as the NYT claimed of Hitler, that he was using this rhetoric to build a following to garner the power to enact his real (unspoken) agenda.
But, (a) isn't that worse? He's willing to say incredibly racist things he doesn't believe in a completely serious manner just to manipulate the public? He's willing to hurt millions of people both emotionally and physically for his own personal benefit? That, in my mind is the definition of a soulless human being. And, (b) that's what they literally said about Hitler. Is this really a chance you want to take? For what? Because you don't like Hillary? Because you want a tax cut?
People, this is our moment. This is the chance our generation is given to stop a despot. We CAN stop this despot. It will take bravery. It won't be easy... and that's exactly why it's so important.
If you're a Republican, step up and speak out against Trump. You might have people give you side eye at some cocktail parties, but I guarantee you that for everyone who thinks you're selling out your party, there will be five more thankful for the freedom you've given them to do the same. Despots only gain power when people are fearful to speak out. One brave voice of dissent becomes five, becomes 500.
If you're a Democrat, get in line behind our candidate. You might have loved Bernie. I get it. He's a good guy who shined the light on important issues facing our democracy. And he knows as much as anyone why action is so important. This is more than just making a Facebook post or using a Twibbon. Donate money, knock on doors, and make phone calls. If you can't do it for Hillary, do it against Trump.
For everyone, the most important thing you can do is call out Trump's bigotry when it rears its ugly head. More importantly, DON'T LET HIS SUPPORTERS OFF THE HOOK. Make them understand that he is unacceptable and their support of him is too. Supporting Trump means they either want an America where those who look different or practice a different religion are treated as less than full Americans, or they are comfortable with America becoming that kind of place as long as they get tax cuts or hawkish foreign policy.
It is not socially acceptable to hate each other and we mustn't let it become so. Be strong. This part is difficult. But it is necessary. We must push back on the normalizing of hate by calling it out where we see it.
We've had some chances to stop him already. Frankly, they were easier lifts than the one we now face. But, we've failed so far to recognize the danger confronting us. As each opportunity passes, the next becomes more and more difficult. But, stop him we must. Otherwise, there is the very real possibility that we will be the ones at whom students in several generations will shake their heads condescendingly, wondering: How dumb were those people? How did they not see Trump coming?
Why didn't they stop him?